Writing History with Interactive Fiction

Sep 20, 10 Writing History with Interactive Fiction

One of the neat things about the Great Canadian Mysteries series is how ‘doing history’ is constructed as ‘solving’ a mystery, where the user/player examines the primary historical documents to solve the crime. In the interactive fiction (IF) below – which is only an early *early* draft – I am trying to accomplish the same thing in a virtual mode where the player is present for the events recounted. Here, the ‘game’ will be to explore and construct and interpretation of the Northwest Rebellion, by interacting with the historical characters who were there… and who speak to you in their own words. One such character is Major Charles Boulton. Just about anything he says in my interactive fiction come from his own published historical reminisces.

Now, an interactive fiction requires plot, pacing, a story arc, and so on (more here); but perhaps it could be as simple as ‘talking’ with a simulated person? Right now, the IF I am envisioning just shows how such a writing of history could be accomplished. Call it a proof-of-concept by a relatively untutored IF author.  I need to program the non-player character of Major Boulton with a bit of artificial intelligence so that he can respond to a wide variety of interactions with the player. My model is Emily Short’s Galatea, which won the 2006 IF prize. I don’t want this work to be a simple kind of chatterbot.

This is an early version of the Major Charles Boulton and the Northwest Rebellion Interactive Historical Fiction, by Shawn Graham. I first put this together in 2007, where it has sat on my pile of ‘interesting projects’.

The interactive fiction community (see the excellent blog maintained by Emily Short for a true artist of the genre) was quick to respond and suggested ways of improving that experiment. Jason Dyer recommended breaking up the Major’s speeches, for, “the sense of discovery in conversation (in this sort of game) needs to be the same as the sense of discovery in exploring an environment.”  That, I think is the crucial observation for writing history in this genre. What do you think? Infocom used to say that the brain was the most powerful graphics engine that there is… is something as retro as interactive fiction a worthwhile vehicle for exploring immersive, interactive history? Should it move off my ‘interesting pile’ to my ‘active’ one?


  1. Tiffany /

    Interesting article. I like what you said about discovery in conversation. Ira Glass of NPR talks about when doing storytelling (in the context of radio, but I see it applying to other media) that the two key things to focus on are the “anecdote,” the sequence of actions in the story that is drawing the listener into the action, and the “question”- the mystery that keeps people hooked until the resolution is revealed. These, especially the “question” seem to relate to that idea of discovery as an unfolding process that you talk about.

  2. Shawn Graham /

    Thanks Tiffany for the observation. I like the idea of interactive fiction as a way of simulating the process of discovery that historians undergo. This too is what the Canadian Mysteries site is all about. When I use Canadian Mysteries with my first year students, they get very upset that they can’t ‘flip to the back’ to see what the solution is. They find the ambiguity very disturbing! So the strength of the unfolding conversation model might be in how it introduces ambiguity in a more ‘natural’ setting.

  3. I love this idea. I wish something like this could be used as a teaching tool in schools, but I fear for much the same reason IF can’t seem to get a commercial foothold, it would have trouble grabbing kids without some fancy graphics.

    • Adding on to Shawn’s comment Devon, I have done some successful work with students making and playing IF in high school history classes. My white paper, if you will, is on my site at http://historicalsimulations.org/theory-practice/mccall-informpaper/. I also gave a talk on using Inform at the 2008 Games Learning and Society Conference — here’s an opinion from someone who saw that. http://chrisstubbs.com/2008/07/inform-gls.html
      Kurt Squire once referred to it as the floor effect. If a student compares IF to their ownt entertainment games, IF can often come up short. Experience suggests, however, that students instead compare IF to other forms of instructions they regularly experience — lecture, recitation, discussion, etc. By that standard IF can hold it’s own in terms of engagement.

  4. Shawn Graham /

    Hi Devon. It might surprise you, actually. A few years ago, Kevin Kee, Tamara Vaughan and myself did a bit of an interactive fiction experiment in a grade 5/6 split classroom. Yes, there was that initial ‘awww text?’ response; but once students were shown how to brainstorm, how to use the editor – how to create a world! – they became very enthused indeed. Our experiment is detailed in 2010 Kee, K., T. Vaughan, S. Graham. “The Haunted School on Horror Hill: A Case Study of Interactive Fiction in the Classroom”. In Youngkyun Baek, ed. Gaming for Classroom-Based Learning: Digital Role Playing as a Motivator of Study. IGI Global: Hershey, PA. pp113-124

  5. Shawn Graham /

    Oh, by the way – meant to provide this link:


    Inform 7 is a natural language editor for writing interactive fiction, and they have some case studies on their website of self-consciously educational uses of IF.


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